Reading Scripture with the Early Church

Christopher A. Hall

I begin by asking a specific question: Is it genuinely possible for people living at the beginning of the third millennium to comprehend meaningfully the world of the ancient church and its leaders, the church fathers? Many – including many seminarians – may have their doubts, but I believe the attempt should be made. Yet if we succeed in building a bridge to the fathers’ world, what will we find when we arrive at the front steps? Will we discover and experience a hospitable environment? Will we be fed or choked by the food the early church (2nd through 8th centuries) offers us? Can an ancient Christian writer’s thoughts on the Scripture be relevant and comprehensible to a contemporary person? From the outset we must acknowledge that conceptual bridge-building is never easy, whether we are attempting to understand the world of the early church or the Bible itself.

More specifically, what might the blind spots be in our cultural setting or our own lives that need to be exposed to the light of ancient wisdom? Frances Young comments that the church fathers belonged to an important intellectual tradition and wrestled with many of the same issues theologians, philosophers, pastors, and laypeople face today. “To see these questions debated in a quite different intellectual [and historical] setting” is edifying, says Young, “for it enables us to step outside our own culturally-conditioned presuppositions and see the issues” in a clearer light (“Patristics,” in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. Alan Richardson and John Bowden [SCM, 1983], 431-35). Or, as Michael Casey puts it, “When we have recourse to writers of antiquity, we have the opportunity to compensate for the blind spots inherent in our particular culture. They help us move toward a more integral wisdom by challenging many of our presuppositions. Because they are unaffected by our particular cultural bias, they can help liberate us from the invisible ideology inherent in our uncritical assumptions about the nature of reality” (Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina [Triumph, 1995], 109). The distance between the contemporary reader and the early church, then, can genuinely become an advantage to be appreciated.

How, then, did the early church read the Scripture? First, we must stress the deep connection the ancient church affirmed between the spiritual health of biblical interpreters and their ability to read the Bible well. For the church fathers, the Scripture was to be studied, pondered, and exegeted within the context of worship, reverence, and holiness. The fathers considered the Bible a holy book that opened itself to those who themselves were progressing in holiness through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. The character of the exegete would determine in many ways what was seen or heard in the biblical text itself. Character and wise exegesis were intimately related. In Athanasius’ words, “…the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures [demands] a good life and a pure soul…. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life…” (On the Incarnation [St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982], 96).

Clearly, early Christian leaders believed the best exegesis was conducted by spiritually formed members of the church itself. The Scriptures, the fathers uniformly believe, have been given to the church, are read, preached, heard, comprehended, and applied within the community of the church. This holistic, communal, ecclesial approach to biblical interpretation is surely a methodology that warrants a close investigation in the highly individualized culture of North America and the increasingly globalized world at large.

We have set the stage for a closer examination of how the early church read the Bible. Ancient Christian interpreters of Scripture shared some common assumptions. All agreed that the Bible is an inspired text. All agreed that personal disposition and spiritual health affect one’s ability to read Scripture well. All agreed that once the exegete has determined the meaning of a biblical text and plumbed its possible applications, the text’s inherent divine authority summons the biblical interpreter to obedience. All agreed that biblical interpretation is a Christian communal endeavor the exegete must practice within the context of Christ’s body, the church. Most possessed a profound respect for the exegetical efforts of other interpreters in the church’s history, even when they disagreed with their conclusions. Exegesis is never, early interpreters argued, to be practiced in an historical, traditional or communal vacuum.

Despite these points of agreement, however, points of disagreement among early Christian exegetes are identifiable. Controversy periodically erupted among them over a fairly specific question: How was one to identify and interpret the levels of meaning in a biblical text? For many modern readers this might seem a strange question. Many students of biblical hermeneutics – particularly those from an evangelical background – affirm that the grammatical-historical interpretation of a biblical text leads to only one valid meaning – that intended by the author. To add other layers of meaning is to create a hermeneutical labyrinth, a maze in which interpreters will soon find themselves hopelessly confused and lost. Most early Christian interpreters would agree that grammar, historical background, and the biblical author’s intent are all important factors in reading the Bible well. Yet the church fathers would not limit a biblical text’s meaning solely to the intent of the author.

Ancient Christian interpreters recognized the grammatical-historical meaning of a text as its literal sense and stressed its importance. Yet they saw this meaning as only one of the text’s possible senses. All ancient interpreters expected to find layers of meaning within a biblical text. The question they posed to each other – and to us – is in what way and to what degree does this layering manifest itself (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Church Fathers [Paulist, 1985], 25)? Typological interpretation, for instance, in which we discover “a foreshadowing and prediction of the events of the Gospels,” was practiced to a lesser or greater extent by virtually all early Christian interpreters (James L. Kugel and Rowan A. Greer, Early Biblical Interpretation [Westminster, 1986], 80). Allegorical interpretation, defined by Kugel and Greer as an interpretive approach in which “biblical persons and incidents become representative of abstract virtues or doctrines,” was enthusiastically embraced by certain church fathers and viewed with suspicion by others. For some ancient interpreters, the distinction between typology and allegory was blurred at best.

Some early Christian interpreters such as Origen, a biblical scholar trained in the school of Alexandria, believed it was important to approach the Scripture with the expectation that it would speak on different levels. The greatest early advocate of allegorical interpretation of the Bible, Origen writes “that the Scriptures were composed by the Spirit of God and that they have not only a meaning that is manifest but also another that is hidden as far as most people are concerned…. About this the universal Church is in accord, that the whole law is spiritual. What the law is full of, however, is not known to all but only to those to whom it is given by the grace of the Holy Spirit in a word of wisdom and knowledge” (Origen, De principiis, praef. 8; cited in Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Church Fathers, 25).

Through the comparison of texts inspired by the Spirit the interpreter recognizes and unlocks the truth of the same texts through the Spirit. This is the hermeneutical principle that Origen believes will prevent an overactive hermeneutical imagination from abusing the use of allegory in determining the deeper sense of Scripture. That is, biblical interpreters can build up a symbolic reservoir of meaning by soaking their minds in the biblical narrative as a whole. Scripture itself will provide the symbolic grid needed to discern and comprehend its deepest meaning. Hence, from the view of Origen and other early interpreters, the search for a deeper symbolic or allegorical meaning in the biblical text is not a hermeneutical free fall in which anything can mean anything. Because the biblical narrative itself – from Genesis to Revelation – fills Origen’s symbolic or allegorical reservoir, his interpretation results from the use of symbolic clues revealed through a comparison of text with text. This methodology, often a fruitful one, is based on Origen’s deeply held conviction that the Holy Spirit has inspired each syllable of the Bible. As Ronald Heine comments: “Origen’s allegorical reading of the Bible was a coherent and controlled reading. The principle of comparing Biblical texts, which he based on 1 Corinthians 2:13, was a primary factor in both the coherence and controlled nature of his reading” (“Reading the Bible with Origen,” in The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity, ed. Paul M. Blowers [University of Notre Dame Press, 1997], 132).

The allegorical methodology so popular at Alexandria was not without its critics among the church fathers, and rightly so, for the extended use of allegory is hermeneutical dynamite – handle with care! The use of allegorical interpretation requires great care and control. Clearly articulated rules governing its use and detecting its abuse are absolutely necessary. Without these safeguards exegetes can easily wrap their imaginations around the biblical text, importing into the text whatever their hermeneutical fancy desires the text to say. For these allegorical interpreters the Bible can become a lump of wax they mold into a foreign shape, perhaps even their own image.

Ancient interpreters centered in Antioch, such as Diodore of Tarsus, John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, responded to the same exegetical issues that Origen faced, generally appreciated his work, but were less sanguine concerning the fruitfulness of a heavy reliance on allegory in reading the Scripture. Their viewpoint, one that space does not allow us to explore deeply, complimented the perspective of the school at Alexandria. Antiochian interpreters deeply valued “careful textual criticism, philological and historical studies, and the cultivation of classical rhetoric” (Karlfried Froehlich, Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church [Fortress, 1984], 20). Yet, as Froehlich points out, to make a sharp distinction between Alexandrian and Antiochene exegesis, as though Alexandrian fathers were only allegorizers while Antiochene exegetes remained firmly planted in the literal meaning of the text, is to simplify matters.

Origen, the allegorizer par excellence, was well aware of the literal meaning of a biblical text. Similarily, exegetes formed by Antiochene hermeneutical methodology were not averse to viewing Scripture as a layered text. One could interpret the Bible in an anagogical fashion in which, as Froehlich explains, “the biblical text leads the reader upward into spiritual truths that are not immediately obvious and that provide a fuller understanding of God’s economy of salvation” (Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church, 20).

The tradition of early biblical interpretation provides us with four key hermeneutical principles modern readers would do well to consider:

Read the Bible holistically. The church fathers insist that the narrative of the Bible is a continuous, deeply connected story from Genesis through Revelation. The Old Testament is not discontinuous with the New. Rather the themes presented in the Old Testament find their fulfillment in the narrative structure of the New Testament. Continuity and fulfillment characterize the entire story. Most importantly, the fathers insist that the biblical narrative reaches its culmination, its thematic climax, with the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of the Son of God. We will read the Bible ineffectively and incorrectly, the fathers warn, if we fail to read its individual parts in the light of its overarching, unifying message.

Read the Bible christologically. All the fathers read Scripture through the prism of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. As Irenaeus instructs, “If one carefully reads the Scriptures, he will find there the word on the subject of Christ – de Christo sermonem…. He is indeed the hidden treasure in the field … the hidden treasure in the Scriptures is Christ” (Adversus Haereses 4.6.1; cited in Metropolitan Emilianos Timiadis, The Relevance of the Fathers [Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994], 57).

Read the Bible communally within Christ’s body, the church. Early Christian exegetes insisted that exegesis is an ecclesiastical endeavor. It takes place within the church for the church. How, they would ask, could things be otherwise? For the church fathers, hermeneutics is not an objective science that can be practiced by any scholar within any context. Rather, hermeneutics in Christ is a spiritual, communal, interpretive art. It is safely, wisely, and fruitfully exercised only by those whose minds and hearts have been soaked in and shaped by the gospel itself – within the Christian community’s reflection, devotion, and worship.

Read the Bible within the context and practice of prayer, worship, and spiritual formation. The church fathers’ insistence on the indissoluble connection between spiritual health, life in the church, and commentary on the church’s book rebukes the modern tendency to separate scholarship from spirituality and worship. Almost all early Christian exegetes were pastors; many were bishops. As leaders of the church they did not have the luxury of pursuing biblical scholarship solely as an academic exercise. Their exegetical work was done in the context of the preparation of sermons or the instruction of catechumens. As they read a text they asked themselves, “What is the word of Christ in this text to my congregation? How can I shepherd my flock more effectively through preaching this text well? How is it addressing my heart as well as my mind? Where is this text calling me and my congregation to listen? To change? To repent? To grow?”

[In this essay I have freely drawn from my book, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1998). I would encourage readers who wish to explore early Christian interpretation in more depth to consult this text.]

Posted Feb 25, 2015